President Obama unveiled plans tonight for the most sweeping executive action on immigration in decades, easing the threat of deportation for the parents of millions of America’s K-12 schoolchildren.
By offering temporary legal status to an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants, along with an indefinite reprieve from deportation, Obama’s action will ease longstanding concerns among educators about separating school-aged children from their parents and guardians.
The order will offer deportation reprieves and working papers to undocumented parents of children who are either U.S. citizens or have legal residency here and who have lived in the United States for at least five years. Obama’s order grants similar status to undocumented residents who were brought to the United States as children, by expanding eligibility for the existing “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, but would not extend any such benefits to the wave of unaccompanied minors—most from Central America—who surged across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year.
“I have seen the determination of immigrant fathers who worked two or three jobs, without taking a dime from the government, and at risk at any moment of losing it all, just to build a better life for their kids,” Obama said in his primetime address. “I’ve seen the heartbreak and anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken away from them just because they didn’t have the right papers.”
In 2012, children with at least one undocumented immigrant parent accounted for nearly 7 percent of U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to a Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project report released this week. Based on 2012 Census data, that’s more than 3.8 million students.
“There’s a great deal of psychological uncertainty that makes it very hard for (those) students to fully feel secure,” said Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a network of 17 high schools around the country that serve newly-arrived immigrants and English-language learners.
“If this alleviates that situation, it’s going to create a sense of security for families that will allow students to focus on their schoolwork” instead of worrying their parents or other family members might be deported, she added.
The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, estimates that Obama’s executive action will lift the threat of deportation for as many as 3.7 million undocumented immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
On Friday, Obama will travel to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, the same place he launched his push for immigration reform in January 2013 by calling on Congress to pass comprehensive legislation.
Within five months of that speech, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a sweeping overhaul to the country’s immigration laws, garnering votes from 14 Republicans. But the Republican-led House never took up the proposal, largely due to a small and vocal group of conservatives within the GOP caucus who oppose a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
With Congress’ refusal to act, Obama acted unilaterally, making a decision that has drawn praise from immigration advocates and scorn from Republican lawmakers who say the president is overstepping his authority.
“There are families representing every part of the American fabric who need relief and who have waited an unconscionably long time for progress on reform,” said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. “The president has the necessity and the authority to act on behalf of those families and for the benefit of our nation as a whole.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who’s led the conservative wing of the GOP in opposing immigration reform, fired off an op-ed in Politico this week, calling on Congress to “use every tool available to prevent the President from subverting the rule of law.”
Obama will return to Del Sol High to rally support for his executive action in a state where nearly 18 percent of all K-12 students have at least one parent who is undocumented, the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project report found.
“I’ve seen the courage of students who, except for the circumstances of their birth, are as American as Malia or Sasha; students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love,” Obama said.
Along with Nevada, California, Texas and Arizona are among the states with large shares of undocumented immigrant parents, the Pew study found.
In a precursor to Obama’s executive action, the federal Justice and Education Departments sent guidance to districts across the nation this past spring, reminding public schools that they are required to provide all children with equal access to education at the elementary and secondary levels, regardless of their own, or their parents’ or guardians’ citizenship or immigration status.
There are still some limitations of the reforms, said members of the San Francisco-based group Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC), which works to support undocumented students.
“This announcement is not a permanent solution, we’re not really sure what will happen after President Obama leaves office,” said Jazmin Segura, E4FC’s policy and communications manager. “There’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty that will remain in the community.”
Katharine Gin, co-founder and executive director of E4FC, said she urges educators to provide information about the reforms to immigrant youth so they know what their and their family’s options are, and to help them access reputable legal advisors.
“It’s important to emphasize how essential educators will be in this process,” she said. “It is our hope that educators around the country will see the enormous potential they have.”
Lauren Camera and Madeline Will contributed to this report.
(UPDATE: This post was updated with quotes from President Obama’s primetime address Thursday night.)
Photo: President Barack Obama announces executive actions on immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House Thursday night in Washington.—Jim Bourg/Getty Images
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.